The Value of Reading

Here I am, trying to write a blog post! Even though I’m tired and I have a lot of reading to do tonight for the classes I’m teaching tomorrow. But it’s so easy for me to focus on everything that needs doing, and neglect the things I want to do. (Although, I have to tell you, I’m working on the novel! I’m very happy about that.)

Tonight, I thought I would write about a quotation I found on Facebook. It was posted by Jonathan Carroll, who is always a wonderful source of quotations. It goes like this:

“We are, if not exactly ‘saved’ by reading, at least partially ‘repaired’ by it: made the better morally and existentially. To those who find that idea fanciful I would put the question: when were you last mugged on the Underground by someone carrying Middlemarch in his pocket? We read to extend our sympathies, to see ourselves in others and others in ourselves, to educate our imaginations, to find liberation from the prison of the self, to be made whole where we are broken, to be reconciled to the absurdity of existence, in short to be redeemed from flesh, the ego and despair.” –Howard Jacobson

Doesn’t that sound wonderful? The problem is, I don’t agree with it. We try so hard to justify reading, in a society in which many people simply don’t read, that we assign it some sort of moral value. We say that reading will make us moral. It will save us from becoming the sorts of people who mug others on the subway. And I think that’s absurd. The sorts of people who carry around Middlemarch in their pockets have generally received an expensive enough education that they don’t want to jeopardize it by having a criminal record. But also, perhaps they haven’t read Middlemarch carefully enough. Because if you read it, really read it, you might become the sort of person who mugs people on the subway in sheer despair. You might realize that you live in a society that limits your choices, in which love and authenticity are difficult to achieve. You might identify with Dr. Lydgate.

Don’t tell me that reading The Stranger or The Metamorphosis or 1984 is going to keep you from mugging people! Or even The Hobbit.

Reading is just as likely to wound you, to make you hate other people or the society you live in. To long for something else, to reject the absurdity of at least contemporary existence. The people who ban books are wrong about banning books, but right about why one would ban them: because they are a bad influence. They make us discontented with our lives. They are subversive. They do not reconcile us; they encourage us to rebel. Writers understand that: Flaubert warned us in Madame Bovary.

Books are not spinach. They are brownies. (Coincidentally, I just ate brownies. They were desert, after a dinner of a ham omelet with buttered toast.) If they were spinach, do you think we would want to read them?

The justification for reading, the importance of reading, is that it damns us, wounds us, makes us thought criminals who reject the status quo. But in the process, it opens us up to new possibilities, which include the possibility of changing the world we live in. Or rejecting it.

I am sorely tempted to write a short story about a man who mugs people on the subway specifically because he has read Middlemarch. Because I can see exactly why he would.

George Eliot by Alexandre Louis Fran├žois d’Albert Durade

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4 thoughts on “The Value of Reading

  1. well there are spinich books – the ones they make you read in school (or at least in high school). I’ll have to admit my class on women authors in college (much later in life) was so wonderful I didn’t pick up a male author for 20 years ( no lie!).

  2. I do love your reasoning! As a teacher of reluctant readers in high school (my average reading level this year is 6th grade even though they are in 9th grade)…I like suggesting to them that books are dangerous and that they should read because others won’t want them too.

  3. Or a sort of Fight Club of Middlemarch aficionados (if that’s the right word for people turned to despair by that book. Maybe desperadoes would be a better term)?

    I don’t know if I’d call books brownies. I’d say they’re fairy food, that makes us strange to the world around us, and the world drab by comparison–except the bits touched by fairy too, of course. The sugar is just there to cover the taste of change.

  4. I would postulate that voluntarily reading a book would be a symptom and not the cause of a curious and questioning mind.

    And I’d read that short story. For some reason it reminds me of a darker Raffles.

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